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A Massive Drone War Can Engulf Afghanistan

May 30, 2022
A TB2 combat drone in Ashgabat at a military parade from 2022. Via Turkmenistan media.

Since the fall of Kabul in mid-August last year the new Taliban regime consolidated their grip on power helped along by enablers in Islamabad, Beijing, Tehran, and even Moscow. But the absence of international recognition and violence orchestrated by the resident ISIS franchise have frayed their attempts at governance. Making matters worse, the Taliban’s unreliable border guards fought with their counterparts in four countries in the past six months just when the holdouts calling themselves the National Resistance Forces (NRF) are organizing a rebellion. The looming disorder raises the frightful possibility unrestricted airstrikes by a new generation of combat drones are launched by vengeful neighbors.

When the US crushed the Taliban 21 years ago the army, air force, and Marine Corps still enjoyed an overwhelming advantage in unmanned technology and so did NATO contingents that rotated in and out of the country. By comparison, Chinese and Iranian efforts at developing similar technology just plodded along. Of course, two decades later China and Iran have built national aerospace manufacturing sectors as part of their industrial economies and their combat drones either achieved parity or surpassed those from the West. However, it’s not just China and Iran–two neighbors who aspire to maintain cordial relationships with the Taliban–who have intimidating drone power today. Since the Taliban’s behavior so far is untrustworthy and volatile, regional combat drones may soon come into play against them.

On April 16 airstrikes on two border provinces were launched by Pakistan and these likely involved a mix of fighter jets and combat drones. The intended targets were suspected Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan or TTP hideouts but press agencies revealed horrific collateral damage and at least 47 fatalities, most of them civilians. There was no indication the Taliban had prior knowledge of the attack and official statements from Kabul condemned Pakistan’s actions. But the airstrikes fall into an emerging pattern of volatile cross-border incidents the Taliban and other armed groups in Afghanistan get habitually embroiled in.

Despite Tehran’s steadfast diplomacy the Taliban’s borders guards have fought with their Iranian counterparts on at least two occasions and these led to military build ups in December last year and then again in April 2022. During the last five months Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan experienced grave security risks versus terrorist groups on their own borders. As recently as May 9 the local ISIS franchise in Afghanistan organized a rocket attack on Tajikistan’s border. Weeks later it came to light Dushanbe mended its relationship with Tehran and there’s now “security assistance” involved; in previous decades it was China, Russia, and the US who supplied equipment and training for Tajikistan’s armed forces and police. Now evidence has surfaced that Iran allowed the transfer of an assembly line for Ababil-2 drones to a new Central Asian client–these are small low altitude models that can either perform surveillance or be converted to a loitering munition.

If internal conflict and more aggression becomes the dominant pattern of the Taliban this becomes intolerable for its neighbors who have shown their willingness to fight back. Combat drones, aside form the usual conventional weaponry, then serve as the perfect tools for punitive campaigns below the margin for all-out war. Stability was never a hallmark of insular Taliban rule but today the neighbors have a distinct advantage in aerial warfare and have many allies and suppliers to draw from. Pakistan has shown its hand and its armed forces have put together a formidable drone arsenal it can unleash on Afghanistan. Although dozens of US-supplied UAVs were collected by Taliban, none are able to carry or launch munitions and their airworthiness is doubtful.

Here’s a partial tabulation of combat drone and surveillance drone inventories in Central Asia.

UCAVUAVLOITERING MUNITION
AfghanistanN/AScanEagleN/A
IranAbabil-3/Atlas
Ababil-5
Kaman-12
Kaman-22
Karrar
Fotros
Gaza
Mohajer-6
Shahed-129
Shahed-161
Shahed-171
Shahed-191
Ababil-2
Ababil-3
Mohajer-2
Mohajer-4
Shahed-121
Shahed-123
Yasir
Ababil-1
Arash
Kian
Meraj-504
Sammad
Shahed-136
KazakhstanWing Loong I
Anka-S
Irkut-10
Skylark-1LEX
N/A
KyrgyzstanBayraktar TB2N/AN/A
PakistanBayraktar TB2
Bayraktar Akinci
Burraq
CH-4
Shahpar II
Wing Loong I
Wing Loong II
Falco
Luna NG
Luna X-2000
ScanEagle
Scout Mini
Scout 1
Scout 2
Sentry
Shahpar
Uqab
N/A
TajikistanN/AAbabil-2N/A
TurkmenistanBayraktar TB2
CH-3
WJ-600A/D
Dominator
Falco
Orbiter 3
SkyStriker
UzbekistanN/Alocally made twin-boom VTOLN/A

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